For Stones of Cloquet, wreath business rings in holidays
CLOQUET, Minn. — Like how a rotund Kris Kringle squeezes through a chimney or his reindeer fly, the number of wreaths shipped each holiday season by the Stone Family Wreath Co. is a mystery.
"It's in the thousands," said Bill Stone, with a twinkle of good humor while being proprietarily coy.
Since 1997, three generations of Stones have operated the small business with a large reach.
Located on 40 acres at the northeast edge of Cloquet, the Stones' wreath operation occupies an antique barn next to the home in which Bill and Molly Stone raise their five kids ranging in age from 20 down to 7 — Jessica, Isaac, Lydia, Edward and Abigail.
From November to mid-December, the operation is in full swing day and night. All the children do their part to help get the wreaths decorated, boxed, loaded and out the door to destinations pretty much anywhere.
"I like it a lot," said 12-year-old Edward, who goes by E.J. and has taken it upon himself to annually trek out onto the property to cut down and bring home the family's own Christmas tree. "It's awesome to be part of something so unique."
"I get $5 an hour," said the youngest Stone, Abigail, one day in late November as she went about the work of stapling custom-logoed gift boxes with a pneumatic staple gun. Abigail has earned the nickname among family members as "the barn boss" for her nuanced understanding of the family business.
Molly explained that the couple cherishes the family time together and the lessons the business offers the children in a world in which doorstep delivery of products comes at the click of a button. Younger generations don't always see what's behind the scenes any more, she said.
"They learn this is a family that works hard for what it has," Molly said.
Molly and Bill met crossing paths at Winona State University. He instructed her on how to fly. Once a commercial airline pilot, Bill now owns Venture North Aviation, a flight school and more located at the Cloquet Carlton County Airport.
He and his parents, Carole and Terry Stone, have been into wreath-making and delivery dating back to the 1970s, when Carole learned the craft at the side of a neighbor in Remer, Minn. She and Terry became wholesalers accustomed to making large volumes of wreaths — forecasting the formalized launch of the family business later on.
While busily applying the artificial crab apples and holly berries to a stack of wreaths in a workshop overcome by the fragrant balsam fir boughs, Carole, 69, said, "I don't even smell it after about three days of work. Once in awhile I'll get a whiff."
Bill used to come home from college and pack the back seat and trunk of his car with wreaths, selling out as he went door-to-door.
An early believer in the power of the internet, Bill learned HTML and built a website, turning Stone Family Wreath Co. into a online business at a time when online retail was in its infancy.
"When we started out you could search 'wreaths' and it would be L.L. Bean and Stone Family Wreath Company," he said.
The same search today yields a host of major retailers.
"Target, Martha Stewart — well, let's see," he said, plugging the search into his phone and eliciting more heavyweights such as Lowe's and Home Depot.
But Stone Family Wreath Co. persists on the strength of its strong reputation among loyal customers. Most of the business the company does, 80 percent of it, is corporate gifting. A National Football League referee sends the wreaths annually to the other officials in the league. Wells Fargo and Raymond James Financial are longtime customers. The television game show "Jeopardy!" sends the Stones' wreaths to its employees.
Molly said the company has never taken out a loan, instead growing naturally and on the strength of Bill's computer acuity. Addresses that used to be hand-written are now part of a fully-automated online shopping experience. And the family no longer picks its own balsam — instead getting the wired rings of raw material from a Minnesota supplier. The family snips the edges into a perfect circle and goes from there.
Not every customer orders online. When an order is phoned it, it rings directly to Bill's cellular phone and he answers — exuding a knack for customer service.
"Some people are just born salesmen," Molly said admiringly of her husband.
The company has always used FedEx to deliver its wreaths, and enjoys a good relationship with the package delivery service.
"We're probably one of their biggest customers in the Northland every holiday season," Bill said.
Box trucks come daily to pick up hundreds of orders and a semi-trailer truck backs up to the barn on weekends throughout what is an intense six-week season.
One of the Stones' most notable deliveries is retold as part of family lore — about how Bill once took an order from a man in Duluth and hand-delivered the boxed wreath within the hour.
"He likes to do that sort of thing," Molly said.
"You should have seen the look on his face," Bill added. "Total shock."
The Stone Family Wreath Co. can be found online at stonefamilywreaths.com.